Saturday, April 28, 2012

NBA Playoff Preview (Western Conference)

It's finally here folks, NBA playoff time! Here is how I view the West:

NBA Playoffs (First Round)


#1 San Antonio Spurs VS #8 Utah Jazz (Regular Season: 3-1 Spurs)

Series Preview: For the second straight season the San Antonio Spurs have the top seed in the West and for the second straight season draw an opponent that could potentially give them problems.

For the Spurs the main goal in this series is to not have a repeat of last year’s playoffs where they got bounced out of the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies. Their main advantages in this series are their playoff experience and the matchup in the guard positions. Point guard Tony Parker is coming into this series after finishing the season as a dark horse MVP candidate in which he averages 18.3 points and 7.47 assists a game. Shooting guard Manu Ginobili continues to be the catalyst for the Spurs offense despite missing 32 games this season either by injury of rest. Another factor in favor of the Spurs is that they are better rested coming into the playoffs than last season.

For the Utah Jazz, this is a surprise playoff berth after seeming to be in a rebuilding mode. While looking as almost a certain lottery team throughout the season they had a furious 11-4 April stretch after starting the month at 27-26. After saying goodbye to the Deron Williams era last season they have built a new core around power forward Paul Milsap, forward/center Derrick Favors, center Al Jefferson, and shooting guard Gordon Hayward. Of these four Jefferson has emerged leading the team with 19.2 points and 9.6 rebounds a game. Point guard Devin Harris has had a bounce back year in which he averaged 11.3 points and 5 assists a game. The young Jazz front line of Jefferson, Milsap, and Favors may force the Spurs to insert center Tiago Splitter into the starting lineup.

Impact Player of the Series: Paul Milsap

They don’t call him Mr. Big Shot in Utah for nothing. Milsap has provided plenty of heroics for the Jazz on his way to averaging 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds this season, both career highs. He needs to make his presence felt in this series to balance out the experience gap that the Spurs enjoy with center and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan in their front line.

Prediction: Spurs win series 4-1

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich learned the lesson of keeping his Big 3 rested in time for the playoffs after their surprise exit last year. The Spurs look ready to make what could possibly be Duncan’s last playoff run.

While the Jazz did win their last meeting, it was in a game where the Spurs Big 3 had the night off. The team in tough and show plenty of heart, but they are just too young and inexperienced to overtake a Spurs team with championship pedigree.

#2 Oklahoma City Thunder VS #7 Dallas Mavericks (Regular Season: 3-1 Thunder)

Series Preview: The Oklahoma City Thunder look to exorcise demons of playoff past in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals against the defending World Champion Dallas Mavericks.

For the Thunder this is the first playoffs where they aren’t simply a good story. They are now a team with championship expectations. Small forward Kevin Durant finished the season winning the scoring title for the third year in a row. Durant averaged 28 points, 3.5 assists, and 8 rebounds, in a MVP-caliber season. Point guard Russell Westbrook is also coming a season with a career high 23.6 points average while having 5.5 assists a game, 1.3 below his career average. Power forward Serge Ibaka made his case for Defensive Player of the Year averaging 3.7 blocks a game and finishing with a season total of 241 blocks, 109 more than Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee who came in second. Guard James Harden is having his best season coming off the bench averaging 16.8 points, 3.7 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game, all career highs for Harden.

For the Mavericks it has been an up-&-down season as defending champions. In letting key pieces to their title winning team (center Tyson Chandler, point guard JJ Berea, and forward DeShawn Stevenson) leave in free agency the Mavs made a move to focus cap space for the future. Replacing these pieces with shooting guard Vince Carter, shooting guard Delonte West, and power forward Brendan Wright, while having good stretches, has produced inconsistent results. Power forward and franchise player Dirk Nowitzski had to carry the team on his back for much of the season while averaging 21.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 0.5 blocks per game, all below his career average. Point guard Jason Kidd is showing signs of age this season averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game. This is also the first season in his career where he failed to average a triple double.

Impact Player of the Series: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook has the athleticism to lead the Thunder to victory on any given night. Unfortunately he also has the ability to shoot his team out of a game on any given night as well. The way that he approaches this series will dictate the flow of the series on both ends of the floor including a key matchup between Mavs small forward Shawn Marion and Durant.

Prediction: Thunder wins series 4-2

A lot has changed since their last playoff match; almost all of the changes have been in favor of the Thunder. Last year’s playoffs tested their mettle and now they the chance to prove why many analysts have them coming out of the West.

The Mavs on the other hand may be looking past this season already. In freeing up so much cap space they have possibly sacrificed hopes of repeating as champions to go after native Texan Deron Williams.

#3 Los Angeles Lakers VS #6 Denver Nuggets (Regular Season: 3-1 Lakers)

Season Preview: The Los Angeles Lakers, without Metta World Peace, looks to make a dark-horse title run against an athletic Denver Nuggets team looking to make their own surprise run.

For the Lakers it has been a season of changes. New head coach Mike Brown implementing his own offense, trading key player Lamar Odom to Dallas for a bag of magic beans, and even having their stranglehold on the LA fan base be legitimately challenged by the Clippers for the first time. One thing that hasn’t changed though is the production of shooting guard and franchise player Kobe Bryant. In a season where many expected for his body to show signs of fatigue Bryant has played to his career numbers averaging 27.9 points, 4.6 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game. The twin towers of power forward Pau Gasol and center Andrew Bynum have also played well. Bynum in particular has had a career year averaging 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game and finally starting to live up to the hype that made the Lakers draft him out of high school.

For the Nuggets, this is their first full season in the post-Carmelo Anthony era. They made changes to their roster in trading point guard Raymond Felton to Portland in exchange for point guard Andre Miller, trading for shooting guard Rudy Fernandez, and even trading center Nene to Washington in exchange for center JaVale McGee at the trade deadline. While all this was happening the team proved to be the highest scoring one in the league averaging 104.1 points per game. Small forward Danilo Gallinari, their main acquisition from trading Carmelo last season, has played well this season averaging 14.6 points, 2.7 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game. Point guard Ty Lawson is having a career year averaging 16.4 points, 6.6 assists, and 3.7 rebounds per game. The big surprise though has been rookie forward Kenneth Faried. After not initially getting playing time at the start of the season Faried has played his way to the starting lineup averaging 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds with an intensity that earned him the nickname ‘Manimal’ and made him a fan favorite.

Impact Player of the Series: Ty Lawson

The Nuggets put a lot of pressure on Lawson in giving him the keys to their offense after sending Chauncey Billups to New York as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade last season. He has lived up to their expectations. If Lawson can aggressively attack the basket he can help exploit the gap left by the suspension of Lakers forward Metta World Peace. Lawson can also use his playoff experience in his matchup with his Lakers counterpart Ramon Sessions.

Prediction: Lakers win series 4-2

The Lakers will miss the defense and production of World Peace. However with Bryant focused on tying his idol Michael Jordan along with the unique problems that Bynum and Gasol present it will prove to be too much.

This is where the Nuggets will miss Nene’s size in the middle. McGee is still trying to fully integrate himself to their offense. Couple that with the size he gives up to Bynum and the reluctance of head coach George Karl to use center Timofey Mozgov and the result will be a Lakers victory.

#4 Memphis Grizzlies VS #5 Los Angeles Clippers (Regular Season: 2-1 Clippers)

Series Preview: The Memphis Grizzlies look to prove last year’s playoff run was no fluke against a Los Angeles Clippers team looking to make their own run for the championship and for LA’s soul.

For the Grizzlies this season was one long test to prove that were as good as they looked in last year’s playoffs. That test proved longer when power forward Zach Randolph went down to injury. They held steady though thanks to having small forward Rudy Gay back in the lineup averaging 19 points, 2.3 assists, and 6.4 rebounds per game this season. Center Marc Gasol continued to improve his game averaging 14.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game, earning him an All-Star spot ahead of his brother Pau. The late addition of point guard Gilbert Arenas proved to be a welcome addition to the team and helped stabilize the position for the team.

For the Clippers this is the first time that they have flirted with playoff and championship relevancy. The team had a young core built around power forward Blake Griffin, yet felt like other Clipper cores not meant to last. That changed the moment they traded for point guard Chris Paul and claimed shooting guard Chauncey Billups from the amnesty waiver wires. Those moves made them instant playoff contenders. Paul finished an MVP-type season averaging 19.8 points, 9.1 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. Griffin continued to posterize unsuspecting defenders while averaging 20.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks per game. Small forward Caron Butler, a free agent signing, has had an up-&-down season coming off of knee surgery and has posted career lows.

Impact Player of the Series: Zach Randolph

If you saw his performance against the Orlando Magic in the regular season finale for the Grizzlies, you saw a man that feels he has something to prove. Randolph will need that intensity as he’s matched up against Griffin in this series. If he can contain Griffin and produce offensively in what looks like a close series that frees up Gay and Gasol to play inside.

Prediction: Grizzlies win series 4-3

This series is technically a toss-up, but the Grizzlies have home court and that may be what decides this. Now that they are at full strength with Randolph likely to return to the starting lineup the Grizzlies could out grind the Clippers.

Like I said before though, this series is technically a toss-up, so it would be no surprise if the Clippers pull it off. Paul almost beat the Lakers by himself last year with a New Orleans Hornets team that had far less talent than the Clippers.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How Ozzie Guillen's Castro Comment Expose Miami's Latino Divide

In a packed press room inside Marlins Stadium that had the coverage frenzy worthy of a presidential scandal at 10:30 a.m. on April 10 Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen stepped into the firing line.

Moments after the Marlins announced via press release that they were suspending Guillen for five games Guillen held a press conference to address comments he made in a Time Magazine interview that showed praise to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

To people in and from Miami, FL the saga unfolded in an expected fashion. Outside the stadium located in the Little Havana neighborhood there were protesters calling for Guillen's firing. Some local politicians including the chair of the Hispanic Caucus in the Florida Senate joined in those calls. It just seemed to be normal. Person makes Castro comments, Cuban community reacts.

To people that aren't from Miami or have never stepped foot in the city, this looked like a three-ring circus. While the national media coverage seemed over the top, it served one purpose. With interview after interview with local media figures, this incident showed the Cuban community as a united group.

That to say the least is a complete lie.

What this latest episode in Miami's sports and political history has done is expose a divide that exists between the Cuban community and the rest of the Latino community in the city as well as a divide within the Cuban community itself.

First, a look into the Cuban community.

There are three main groups within the Cuban community. There is the first major wave of exiles that came to the city after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the second major wave of exiles that came in the Mariel boat lifts in 1980, and the descendants of these groups. Deep within the underbelly of these groups there is mainly a generational divide as well as one in the terms of nationalism. The children and grandchildren of the first two groups don't have the same outlook as their elders since they were born here, which is making them a wild card in terms of how the community is evolving. The reason that this fact is not well known outside of South Florida is that the older generation has such a dominant public voice it can silence dissent within its ranks fairly efficiently. This is causing the community to be seen in a distorted view both inside and outside Miami.

Now, to the rest of the Latino community.

Miami not only has largest concentration of Cubans in the United States, but also the largest concentration of Nicaraguans. It also has large concentrations of people from almost every country in Latin America. The vast majority of this community came to this country under completely different circumstances compared to the Cubans in both economic standing when arriving here and in the politics of their homelands. Like the Cubans though, this community is facing a generational gap where the children of the initial immigrants, whether born here or coming at an early age, see themselves more as Americans.

It may seem like the communities have a good relationship, but it's more of an uneasy truce. The uneasiness mainly stems from economic disparity and political representation.

Most of the first wave of Cuban exiles that came here were part of the middle to upper class in Cuban society and brought their wealth with them. That is not the case with the most of the rest of the Latino community. This has caused a form of classism to emerge in the Latino community as a whole in the city.

When it comes to politics, the issue gets a little hairy. Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties are among the strongest Democratic counties in the state of Florida as far as federal elections go except in one area, the regime-like hold Cuban Republicans have in sending people to Congress. Thanks to redistricting efforts by the Republican Party in the Florida Legislature, the congressional maps in Miami-Dade County give the GOP a clear advantage in neighborhoods with large Cuban populations.

I grew up in Miami so I've seen these things first hand. It's an environment where the rules are different when dealing with just one group, especially since that group is the biggest block of the community. Public figures have to know the rules about this community when making even the most casual statements.

Now, having lived outside of Miami for most of my adult life I have seen how the rest of the country views events like this and the Miami community. It's seen as as a circus with the Cuban community serving as the ringleaders. Even with this particular incident the main reaction I got from my friends was "So what, it's just Ozzie being Ozzie." or "Why are these Miami people so damn sensitive?"

Luckily, this incident has allowed for that question to be answered properly.

It's also shown for possibly the first time in this digital age some open dissent from the within the Cuban community.

In a video piece done by reporter Amy K. Nelson, former Miami mayor Joe Carollo called out the hypocrisy of the protesters wanting Guillen fired while keeping quiet about other situations:

Miami Herald columnist, WAXI 790 AM radio host and ESPN2 show host Dan Le Batard on April 10 openly called for the Cuban community to calm down on the radio. He also said that he felt that events such as the Elian Gonzales saga and MLB commissioner Bud Selig bringing American baseball to Cuba in 1999 (and shaking Castro's hand on video) were much worse crimes against the Cuban community.

What Guillen did was stupid in this situation considering the city he works in. The reaction to what he did was either understood or overblown depeniding on where you grew up. What this did do that can bwe seen as a genuine good is shed light into the labrynth that is Miami Latino relations.

If that's the fallout of this situation, then it served its purpose.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Study in Making a Bad Situation Worse: Dwight Howard

There is a reason why LeBron James's 'The Decision' is synonymous with infamy.

It wasn't the actual act of joining the Miami Heat on the one hour ESPN special in the Summer of 2010 that was the infamous event. It was the show itself that was infamous. Despite generating millions of dollars for the Boys & Girls Club, 'The Decision' only made James look like a selfish and arrogant person. Its' effect of turning James from one of the most beloved to one of the most despised players in the NBA has been turned into a lesson on what not to do when it comes to maintaining player popularity.

That lesson apparently hasn't been learned by Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic.

The journey that Howard, arguably the best center in the league, has had this season is similar to the one that Carmelo Anthony had last before he was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks.The main differences between the two is that Anthony didn't make his situation worse with every move he made before the trade. Howard on the other hand, by either purpose or accident, has done exactly that.

Since the beginning of the NBA season the main speculation among front offices, media, and fans has been whether the Magic would adhere to the trade request Howard gave them. As the drama has unfolded there have been small incidents along the way.

There was Howard's battle with the Orlando Sentinel over their coverage of him. There was the rumor that his Adidas contract was the reason he didn't include the Chicago Bulls on his list of trade destinations. There was the rumor around the March 15 trade deadline of a rift with Kobe Bryant that pushed the Los Angeles Lakers from his trade list. These incidents didn't affect Howard as much as it affected the Magic.

During this time the Magic were faced with the nightmare scenario of a 'Shaq incident', in which their franchise center leaves them in free agency, happening again unless they traded Howard. Up until near the trade deadline the spotlight, both good and bad, was squarely on the franchise.

Then Howard decided to change that.

Amid reports around the trade deadline that Magic ownership was willing to give Howard the power to decide the fate of general manager Otis Smith and head coach Stan Van Gundy, he told the media that the Magic should 'roll the dice' on the prospect of him resigning with the team long-term. No one actually bought that statement. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports exposed Howard's real intentions of signing with the New Jersey Nets during the off season so they wouldn't have to give up assets in a trade with the Magic.

Once that cat was let out of the bag Howard scrambled to find a way to avoid the infamy of LeBron. Ultimately Howard decided right at the trade deadline to waive the opt-out clause in his contract which would've made him a free agent this summer. That followed a week of him waffling back and forth about the choice. It also had his agent refuse to sign the proper paperwork to make the decision official with the league, but it was approved anyway.

Then on Thursday came the reports that Howard has asked the Magic on several occasions to have Van Gundy fired. In the press briefing Van Gundy had during the Magic's shoot around before their game against the Knicks he confirmed those reports citing people in management that told him of Howard's requests. That produced what is arguably the most awkward moment of the season when Howard joined Van Gundy in the briefing:

This incident has shown how much of a circus the Magic and Howard had let this become.

Howard's known desire to be liked, be the main superstar on a team, and his dislike of confrontation may have exposed his real character for all to see.

The Magic ownership have let their desire to keep Howard and not see him walk away like Shaquille O'Neal did hinder their front office's efforts to get reasonable assets via trade. Even as reports are coming out that the Magic forced Howard into waiving his opt-out clause by threatening a trade to the Lakers, the team only did so knowing Howard doesn't want to be a Laker.

The drama that Howard and the Magic have created was even analyzed by the very man that left the team in shambles and got Van Gundy to step down as coach of the Miami Heat, Shaq himself:

Howard will have to live with the circus he has become the ringmaster of. While trying to avoid the backlash similar to what 'The Decision' earned LeBron, he may have warranted worse for himself. Sadly, Howard won't get as much backlash as LeBron has gotten and still gets.

Even though Howard probably deserves more.